Scientist Interview: meet Allison Bidlack

Allison Bidlack is the director of the Alaska Coastal Rainforest Center at the University of Alaska – Southeast in Juneau. Through her focus on temperate rainforests and carbon cycle dynamics, she has been one of the leading proponents behind using the Alaska State Ferry system to collect OA data.

 

How did you get into the field of ocean acidification, and what drew you to this type of work?

I actually kind of stumbled into it in the course of my current job. My background is in wildlife and conservation, but my research group now mostly focuses on the ecology of the coastal temperate rainforest margin, and impacts of climate change on that ecosystem. Since OA is one of the manifestations of that change, I’ve had to educate myself about it, which has been a really interesting journey. I’m still learning and certainly don’t consider myself an expert!

Tell us about your project adding sensors to an Alaska state ferry. How did the idea come about and what is it trying to accomplish?

The idea for instrumenting the ferry came out of a series of brainstorming conversations around new and exciting marine research projects we could tackle here in southeast Alaska. This was almost three years ago now. I thought that the Marine Highway ferries would provide a great platform for long-term ocean research, since they run the same routes on a regular basis, and cover much of the coast from Bellingham to Kodiak and the Aleutians, year-round. I also knew that information collected from the ferry routes would be useful not just to scientists interested in the dynamics of ocean acidification, but to shellfish growers and resource managers interested in where the hotspots for OA might be. Of course, I wasn’t the first person to think of this: some of my colleagues had started talking about this years ago, but for some reason that effort never got off the ground. Second time was the charm! I contacted Wiley Evans, who at the time worked for NOAA and is now with the Hakai Institute, and we started hatching a plan to make this happen. We wanted to start by putting instruments on one of the vessels that run the longest routes, so settled on the Columbia, which generally runs from Bellingham to Skagway. Our goal is to use the ferry as a platform to collect continuous surface oceanographic data, such as salinity, temperature, dissolved oxygen, and CO2. This dataset will allow us to quantify spatial and temporal variation in ocean acidification all along the coast. Our hope is that these instruments will remain on the vessel for several years, collecting summer (and potentially year-round) data. And perhaps this can serve as a model for future collaborations with other vessels to increase the coverage of our coast.

What are some of the biggest challenges you see with this type of project?

The biggest challenges were financial and technical. A project like this can run upwards of a quarter million dollars, by the time you account for the instruments themselves, technician time to install and calibrate them, data management, and the permits, engineering, and shipyard work necessary to complete the project safely. A big thanks goes to Hakai for footing most of the bill, with help from AOOS and ACRC. The technical challenges include drilling a hole through the hull of a 418 foot passenger vessel below waterline to pull in seawater. The Coast Guard tends to raise their eyebrows about those types of things!  We also had to run cable through decks and install various components of the system in different places on the ship. All this while the vessel was undergoing other maintenance operations and repairs, so we had to make sure we weren’t interfering too much with their schedule. We worked closely with the Marine Highway, Vigor Shipyard in Portland, and a marine engineering firm to make sure that everything passed muster. Wiley Evans was the hero and the man on the ground making all of this happen. Of course, the Columbia is still in the shipyard, so we are keeping our fingers crossed that she will sail this October, as currently scheduled! Once she’s underway, the challenge will be to maintain the equipment, make sure the instruments are calibrated correctly, and that the data is of high quality. It will be an ongoing labor of love.

Why is understanding ocean acidification important for the Tongass?  

The Tongass is part of a much larger coastal ecosystem that stretches from Prince William Sound to northern California. This coastal temperate rainforest is special because of the tight linkages between land and sea, and its vulnerability to climate change. Much of the region lies right at the temperature transition between rain and snow, and we have one of the fastest rates of glacial mass loss on the planet. The forest and wetlands of the region also sequester huge amounts of carbon above and below-ground. The massive amount of precipitation that runs off the land into the ocean, either from streamflow or glacier melt, carries materials like dissolved organic carbon and glacial flour. These materials can have big impacts on the chemistry of freshwater and the ocean, and can exacerbate coastal OA driven by atmospheric exchange. Understanding OA in this part of the world will help us understand the ecosystem impacts of climate change in linked terrestrial and marine habitats, and will help stakeholders make more informed decisions about traditional shellfish harvesting, mariculture and regional fisheries management.

Please tell us about one of your most memorable moments from your time working on OA.

I think my most memorable moment so far has been the day I got the go-ahead from the head of the Alaska Marine Highway to move forward with the ferry project. I was so excited that they were willing to work with us despite their budget and staffing challenges and tight schedules. I’m really grateful to them for being such wonderful partners in this process and I can’t wait to see the first bits of data come through. Then that will be my most memorable moment, after three years of work and waiting!

 

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